Thursday, 10 October 2019

Two of Us (Filippo Meneghetti, 2019)


Fassbinder favourite Barbara Sukowa gives a fine performance in this touching but rarely sentimental film which depicts a lesbian relationship between two pensioners; it's far removed from the likes of Blue is the Warmest Colour or current critical smash Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but, considering its focus on a couple of a certain age, it's arguably a more daring picture than those two Cannes-winning titles.  It's also a most assured feature debut from Filippo Meneghetti, who carefully handles material which could easily have ended up as overcooked as the scorched contents of the two frying pans which feature in key scenes here.


Sukowa's Nina lives across the hall from Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), and to everyone in their lives they're viewed as simply being friends and neighbours.  However, the two have actually been a couple for many years, and are now planning on moving to Italy.  Nina has no family, but the widowed Madeleine has two grown-up children and a grandson, all of whom live in the same town as her.  Madeleine resolves to tell her family about her plans to sell up and move away, but bottles it at the crucial moment.  Nina is furious, and lets Madeleine know it; shortly afterwards, Madeleine suffers a major stroke.  In a very short span of time, Madeleine and Nina's relatively minor problem of how to break some news has been replaced by something truly shattering.


With a rather surly round-the-clock carer (Muriel Bénazéraf) now looking after the stricken Madeleine, Nina no longer gets to spend much time with the love of her life, and her attempts to rectify this involve increasingly risky - and, to be honest, rather creepy - methods.  In addition to the belligerent Muriel, Nina must contend with Madeleine's daughter Anne (Léa Drucker, excellent), who initially appreciates Nina's neighbourliness - until the penny drops.  Upon realising what was going on behind her late father's back for so many years, Anne is in no mood to grant Nina any further access to Madeleine, who is now showing some small signs of recovery.


With the impressive Chevallier's Madeleine rendered mute for much of the film, it's not too surprising that this ends up largely being Sukowa's show, and she certainly puts it all in with a character who isn't, in the main, terribly likeable, yet the love and devotion she exhibits often serves to cancel out her bad behaviour - at least in the viewer's eyes.  But it's the tenderness at the heart of the relationship between these two women which elevates the film into something way beyond ordinary, and in Two of Us Meneghetti has crafted an authentic, moving and grown-up piece of cinema, one which hopefully won't fly under the radar.  It screens at the London Film Festival tomorrow and on Saturday.

Darren Arnold

Images: Cineuropa

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

#21XOXO / The Sasha (S. & I. Özbilge / M. M. Peiró, 2019)


The Culture is a collection of eight short films which screens at the London Film Festival on the 11th and 13th of October, and every film in the programme takes a look at online culture - something which only recently seemed very futuristic but is now firmly embedded in our everyday lives.  I've only seen a quarter of the films which feature in The Culture, but the ones I've watched have been quite impressive; on this basis, the other 75% of the programme should be worth catching.  The selection includes one film from the Netherlands and two from Belgium, although Belgian title Zombies - a co-production with DR Congo - has thus far eluded me.


The Belgian film in the programme which I have seen is #21XOXO - a clever, witty and rather adult slice of animation which sees a young woman use various forms of technology in her search for love.  As we all know, it's now possible to line up potential partners without even leaving the comfort of home, which is exactly what our protagonist does here; while such practice isn't especially new, it's nonetheless a significant marker of how social interaction has dramatically changed since the advent of new technologies, and the film reminds us of this as it forces us to consider our online selves.  #21XOXO is a fun, refreshing and colourful short, one which turns up something new just when you thought there wasn't much left to say about those who spend their days glued to one screen or another.


The Dutch offering in The Culture takes the form of The Sasha, a contemplative look at the work of astronaut Charles Duke, who was a member of the three-man crew on the Apollo 16 mission.  Among his other lunar duties, Duke was charged with taking photographs, and it's this aspect of his work in the Descartes Highlands that The Sasha focuses on.  Duke attempted to take a photo of the entire Earth from space, but the iconic image we all know as The Blue Marble was actually taken during the next (and final) Apollo mission.  There's a fascinating personal touch in the Apollo 16 story: Duke left a picture of himself, his wife and their two sons on the lunar surface, which he of course photographed.  On the back was an inscription: "This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972", followed by the signatures of Duke's family.  In addition to their virtual visit to the moon via this photograph, Duke's wife and sons had lunar craters named after them. 


Nowadays, we can all enjoy a lunar excursion of sorts thanks to Google Moon (where the Duke family photo can be found at marker 20 in the Apollo 16 site), and footage from this has been used in The Sasha; thus, the film features the traditional chemical photography of Duke's pictures alongside the sophisticated 3D rendering of the moon's surface as provided by Google.  This illustrates just how far technology has advanced in the years since Apollo 16 (although we haven't set foot on the moon since the year of that mission).  As such, it's easy to see why the film has been grouped with #21XOXO, even if the two films boast very different styles.  The Sasha proves to be a hypnotic, eerie and thought-provoking work, one which will leave you reflecting on that old family photograph which, although now almost certainly bleached beyond all recognition, remains up there on the lunar highlands.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net


Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Instinct (Halina Reijn, 2019)


Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari enjoyed a huge international breakthrough just a few months ago, starring as Jafar in the live-action version of Aladdin.  His role in Instinct - which opened in the Netherlands last week and plays at the London Film Festival on Saturday - is markedly different to the one he played in that Disney blockbuster; while still very much the villain of the piece, his character in Halina Reijn's directorial debut is far removed from the pantomime shenanigans of the Grand Vizier.  In Instinct, Kenzari conveys a very real menace which underlines his abilities as a serious dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, he and his co-star Carice van Houten are let down by a faltering script and rather uncertain direction, and Instinct never lands the knockout blow which, judging by its arresting early stages, it seems certain to deliver.


Van Houten's Nicoline is a psychologist who moves from job to job and doesn't appear to have much interest in staying in the one place for too long; her latest gig involves working in a prison for those convicted of serious offences.  Nicoline is experienced and assured, and few things seem to faze her, but this soon changes when she's charged with evaluating Idris (Kenzari), a man with multiple convictions - all of which pertain to violence against women.  Idris, who is on the verge of some unaccompanied parole, is clearly a very dangerous man but seems to be a fairly compliant inmate, and can often be quite charming - which is, presumably, how he snared many of those who went on to become his victims.  Idris' act - if it is an act - seems to persuade Nicoline's colleagues that he has been rehabilitated, but his assigned psychologist has real doubts.


While Nicoline appears to have the measure of Idris - you get the impression she's seen similar men countless times - there's something about this particular prisoner which gnaws away at her in a way she can't rationalise, and it's not long before her icy professionalism goes out of the window.  What follows is an increasingly preposterous game between Idris and Nicoline, one which sees the psychologist unravel as the prisoner toys with the mind of a woman who could well determine which side of the prison wall he ends up on.  Who's kidding who?  More pertinently, who cares?  In pitching the charismatic Idris against the aloof Nicoline, Reijn has created a strange level playing field, of sorts: Idris, unlike Nicoline, often seems to be doing things by the book, but does this current state of affairs mean we should blot out his terrible crimes?  After all, Nicoline's transgressions appear to be limited to this anomalous instance of unprofessionalism.  


Instinct's promisingly pulpy setup is the sort of thing which might just have worked in the mischievous hands of, say, François Ozon or Paul Verhoeven (side-note: Van Houten and Reijn both starred in Verhoeven's Zwartboek); the material really needs cranking up to a level where it would become enjoyably absurd (cf. Elle, L'amant double).  But Halina Reijn - who we're far more used to as a presence in front of the camera - seems to consciously pull back from such an approach, rendering Instinct an ostensibly trashy yarn that's had its guilty pleasures excised; it's a film caught between two stools.  It isn't a terrible movie - but it is a very frustrating one; while the two leads are very good, they're chained to a script which misses many opportunities to open up into something much more satisfying.  While Reijn hasn't made a bad job of her first feature film, she has opted to play it far too safe; given the subject matter, it seems most ironic that Instinct comes across as a film in which very few risks have been taken.

Darren Arnold

Images: Topkapi Films

Monday, 7 October 2019

Spring Fever/Eyes on the Road (A. Snowball/S. Kolk, 2019)


Spring Fever is one of seven films which make up London Film Festival shorts collection ...In an Age of Consent.  "De Week van de Lentekriebels" is, as many of you will know, a schools sex education programme which is well established in the Netherlands.  As with any sex ed class anywhere on the planet, "Lentekriebels" ("Spring Fever") has attracted some criticism and controversy, but much of the world has admired the way in which the programme has demystified sex and relationships for Dutch schoolchildren, thereby leading many a youngster to happy and healthy teenage years.  Anna Snowball's short, lively documentary captures snippets of the discussions in a Dutch classroom where "De Week van de Lentekriebels" is currently underway.


As you would expect, many of the pupils initially struggle to keep a straight face when discussing such a topic - but, to be fair to them, their teacher is no different - yet the smiles and nervous laughter soon give way to some thoughtful questions and answers; it's clear how little these children really know about the subject, but their friendly, good-humoured teacher is able to dispel a few of the myths and assumptions her pupils have picked up in their short lives thus far.  This could be an excruciating exercise for all concerned, but the children have no intention of making things difficult for their teacher.  The film provides an interesting glimpse into a situation many of us won't have encountered firsthand (or if we did it took a very different form); Spring Fever is very simple, but fairly effective. 


A separate LFF collection of seven shorts - Drive It Like You Stole It! - also features a Dutch film in the form of Eyes on the Road.  This film concentrates on three young women who are on a road trip in a car they appear to be living in.  The film's title is directly connected to the comments made by one of the women concerning another's driving, but this moment of friction (which soon dissipates) is not the, or even a, major event here.  Rather, the women's freewheeling conversation takes a turn into a dark and troubling area where they discuss a friend who was subjected to a terrible assault.  While this is a grim subject matter in itself, things get worse when differing opinions start to surface.


Although Eyes on the Road is to be applauded for dealing with a difficult issue, it's unfortunately not a very satisfying piece of work.  The actresses all do quite well, but there simply isn't enough in the script to keep Eyes on the Road going for its duration; even at a brief 17 minutes, the film still feels padded out.  The ending is also highly disappointing, and it's a great pity that what appears to have been a good idea has been so poorly executed.  Eyes on the Road has the air of an arbitrary chunk of a feature film, albeit one you probably wouldn't want to sit through.  But, if for some reason you do like the sort of cinema experience where it feels as if you've turned up late and left early, then it might just be for you.  It screens at the LFF on the 10th of October.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net


Sunday, 6 October 2019

The Prince's Voyage (J-F. Laguionie / X. Picard, 2019)


Xavier Picard, director of the excellent Moomins on the Riviera, teams up with veteran animator Jean-François Laguionie for this quasi-sequel to the latter's 1999 film A Monkey's Tale.  Laguionie has been working in animation for over 50 years yet, A Monkey's Tale aside, his work isn't especially well known beyond continental Europe.  While Laguionie's films bear similarities, in both mood and appearance, with those of Michel Ocelot, he's never really experienced anything like the same success as that enjoyed by his lauded contemporary (as a side note, Ocelot's BAFTA-winning The Three Inventors was filmed in Laguionie's home).  That said, Laguionie did receive an honoray award (and a standing ovation) at this year's Annecy IAFF, where A Prince's Voyage premiered; it continues its festival run at the London Film Festival, where it screens today as part of the Family programme.  The film will go on general release in early December.


When Prince Laurent is washed up on an unfamiliar shore, he's rescued by young Tom, whose name is just one letter away from that of Kom, the main character from A Monkey's Tale; Laurent notices, and comments on, this similarity.  Tom takes the injured Laurent to convalesce at the home of married couple Victor and Elisabeth who, like Tom and Laurent, are monkeys, as indeed are all the characters who populate the film.  Elisabeth is a botanist who is working to find a solution to the forest which seems bent on reclaiming every building it comes across, including the remote, abandoned museum where the couple now reside.  Victor is a professor who has long been obsessed with proving that other monkey civilisations exist on the same planet, a theory which has made him a black sheep in his academic circle.  So when Laurent - who speaks, but in another language - arrives, Victor sees the prince as a golden chance to prove his hypothesis to his peers.  Laurent is cultured and sophisticated, but, in scenes which nod towards François Truffaut's The Wild Child, acts in a primitive manner simply to irk the professor.


While Laurent doesn't care for the professor or the stern Elisabeth, he's far more taken with Tom, and the two enjoy spending time together, learning each other's language and trading stories about their different cultures.  This shared curiosity gives Laurent and Tom the urge to discover the sights of the nearest city, and the pair sneak out to spend a night exploring various metropolitan delights.  Laurent is struck by the sullen nature of the city dwellers, who fail to respond to his cheerful greetings as they trudge home after a day's work.  The city's population are allowed to have fun in the evenings, however, and Laurent and Tom join them in various leisure activities, including a showing of a film which, amusingly, riffs heavily on King Kong.  As the only member of the audience who's laughing at the spectacle, Laurent has to leave the screening, and as he and Tom begin to head home they are pursued by some shadowy figures; the prince's fortunes are about to take a turn for the worse.


As you'd expect, the animation in The Prince's Voyage is top notch, and at 77 minutes the film by no means outstays its welcome - although a late development which introduces some new characters feels slightly unnecessary.  As with much of the aforementioned Michel Ocelot's output, The Prince's Voyage isn't the ideal film for very young children; the LFF screening is subtitled - although an actor will read out the subtitles, via headphones, for the benefit of younger audience members - which is rather telling.  Unless a version with English audio exists (or is planned), the film probably won't travel much further than the majority of Laguionie's efforts.  While it's all a little bit low-key, there is much to like here, and the simple, clear message - that we shouldn't be afraid of the Other, but rather should look to what unites us all - is a fine one for children and adults alike.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Transnistra (Anna Eborn, 2019)


Anna Eborn's Transnistra was produced with support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), and earlier this year it scooped the VPRO Big Screen Award at the IFF Rotterdam.  It continues its festival run today with a screening at the London Film Festival, and although it has enjoyed real success on the festival circuit, it's difficult to see it having much of a life as a theatrical release.  However, this documentary may just find a more suitable home on the small screen; indeed, winning Rotterdam's Big Screen Award guarantees it a screening slot on Dutch channel NPO 2.


As its title just about tells you (it's one vowel short), the film takes place in the breakaway state of Transnistria, which most of the world considers to be part of Moldova.  Eborn's film isn't really concerned with Transnistria's history nor its position in the world; there's no exposition here, so you'll have to read around the film if you don't (and wish to) know about the post-USSR birth of the republic and the ensuing conflict with Moldova.  Instead, the director focuses on half a dozen 16-year-olds: one girl, Tanya, and her five male friends.  Naturally, more than one boy has their sights on Tanya's affections, and the group dynamic shifts according to who she's closest to at any given time.  The youths spend much of their time hanging around a factory that appears to have been abandoned halfway through its construction, although in summertime they do enjoy swimming and generally messing around in the water.  There's little ambition in evidence until Tanya mentions she would like to move to Greece for work; this statement does not go down well with her peers.


While nicely shot (on 16mm), Transnistra can't overcome the dull and largely unappealing nature of the six people it chooses to track; Tanya is fitfully interesting, but the five boys soon become virtually interchangeable to us and, seemingly, to Tanya.  Quite why we're watching over 90 minutes of this group, who go through the film without doing or saying very much of note, is something of a mystery.  The film remains just on the right side of watchable, but it's a one-paced effort that left me with no idea as to what Anna Eborn was trying to say.  Take away the setting, which admittedly is rather novel for audiences outside of the former USSR, and you may as well be watching any bunch of bored, aimless teens.


What is quite exasperating is that there is more than one opportunity for Eborn to jump into more interesting waters; there's no better example of such oversight than when Tanya's little brother signs up for military academy, which seems like an ideal starting point for an examination of the state he's pledged to defend.  But the film sticks to its pedestrian path, with the director seemingly uninterested in anything which strays from the ennui depicted here.  Transnistra may not be a bad film per se but, most frustratingly, it chooses to disregard what many viewers will want from a documentary.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net

Friday, 4 October 2019

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Mads Brügger, 2019)


Cold Case Hammarskjöld sees feather-ruffling filmmaker Mads Brügger turn his attention to the mysterious death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.  During the Congo Crisis, Hammarskjöld was en route to attempt to broker a ceasefire between Katangese troops and UN forces, but was killed in a plane crash in what was Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).  Congo had only recently gained independence from Belgium, and tensions were high in the region; Hammarskjöld was keen for newly-independent African countries to establish themselves and escape the long shadow of colonialism, and naturally this stance brought about many enemies.  It was widely known that mining companies such as Belgian venture Union Minière would benefit from the removal of Hammarskjöld, but quite who, if anyone, is responsible for his death - MI6, the CIA and South African intelligence have all been suggested as possible saboteurs of the plane - has remained the murkiest of mysteries for well over 50 years.


Brügger's investigation takes him to various African locations, including the spot where the Douglas DC-6 carrying Hammarskjöld went down; for much of the film, Brügger is joined by Göran Björkdahl, who possesses a metal plate - purportedly from Hammarskjöld's plane - which his father obtained while visiting the crash site in the 1970s.  Although Brügger is digging (quite literally, at one point) to find out the truth about Hammarskjöld's death, it's clear early on that the film, in many ways, is more the Mads Brügger show than anything else; perhaps this is to be expected, given his past life as a TV host.  There's a showboating, flippant and baiting side to Brügger, who's first seen proudly sporting an all-white outfit; later, he - like Melania Trump in Kenya - dons a pith helmet, that symbol of white colonial rule.  He also, for no discernible reason, chooses to dictate to two equally baffled secretaries.  But such eccentric behaviour masks a man who is actually quite adept when it comes to obtaining sensitive information, and Brügger goes further than many would dare, unearthing some unpleasant, genuinely disturbing findings concerning post-colonial Africa.


Black witnesses were not seen as credible at the time and place of Hammarskjöld's death so, as you'd both hope and expect, Brügger tracks down a number of of them, and they all recall certain common elements from that day in 1961: the sight of a second, smaller aircraft; a flash of light in the sky; a loud, gunshot-like noise.  From these (and other) interviews, a hypothesis emerges: a bomb was planted on the unguarded aircraft before it took off from Léopoldville, but this explosive device failed to detonate; thus, a backup plan was put into action, wherein a fighter jet was scrambled in order to shoot down Hammarskjöld's plane.  A Belgian-British pilot who served with the RAF in WW2, Jan van Risseghem, is here alleged to be the man who carried out the mission.  Van Risseghem died in 2007, but his links to breakaway state Katanga are well documented.  There's also the matter of a playing card - the ace of spades - which was apparently tucked under the dead Hammarskjöld's shirt collar; apparently this calling card - a "death card" - signals CIA involvement, although instinct tells us it may well have been planted by someone completely unconnected to Langley.


All this is sufficiently troubling, but Brügger's enquiries eventually lead him to an organisation called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR).  Don't be fooled by its benign name - this was a shadowy paramilitary outfit which worked with the Apartheid regime, and its alleged activities range from involvement in Dag Hammarskjöld's murder to the spreading of AIDS (under the guise of giving vaccines against the virus) in order to eradicate black Africans.  SAIMR was headed by a figure known as "Commodore" Keith Maxwell (among other aliases), whose written ravings reveal an unhinged character, one who'd possibly read Heart of Darkness one too many times (but still missed Conrad's central point).  Maxwell has frequently been likened to Auschwitz's "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele, which perhaps tells you more than you wish to know about his deeds.  It's hard to work out what, if anything, is true among Maxwell's diaries, and a valid question is asked more than once: why would such classified, incriminating information be written down?  Cold Case Hammarskjöld is an unnerving, chilling and frequently horrifying film, and it stands as one of the year's finest documentaries.  It screens at the London Film Festival today and tomorrow.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net